by Paula M. Riley
Soccer team, art class, drama club – throughout September, parents sign up children for interesting and enjoyable extra-curricular activities. Children with autism spectrum disorders, however, are often unable to participate in these activities because of behavioral and communication challenges that accompany their condition.
But thanks to the efforts of Fran O’Donnell and Cynthia Day, these children – along with kids not on the autism spectrum – can enjoy art, yoga, acting classes, game nights and more!
The Spectrum Studio for Fun and Social Connections will be held in O’Doodles’ second floor party room.
It represents the collaboration of many individuals committed to creating meaningful social opportunities for children on the autism spectrum.
“Children on the autism spectrum are often very self-isolating,” Day said. “The goal of the Spectrum Studio is to provide opportunities for fun activities for kids on and off the (autism) spectrum, where kids can have a good time, form relationships and work on social skills.”
Day is the mother of a child with autism and is involved with Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism science and advocacy organization.
In seeking opportunities for her son, she found specialized programs “here and there.” She could enroll him in a specific class for autistic kids, but it often involved a commute and didn’t include family or siblings.
The Spectrum Studio in Chestnut Hill will serve as a center for these types of programs but will be open to all children and will include family activities as well.
“Kids on the autism spectrum are often involved in so much formal therapy that we really wanted to offer them a setting where they could have a good time, feel creative and participate in group activities whose primary focus is having fun,” Day said.
O’Doodles would seem to be the perfect host for the studio. Owner Fran O’Donnell has considered his shop “unplugged” since he converted his family’s stationery shop to a toy store.
“We sell toys that encourage kids to unplug (their computers and gadgets) and get back to the simplicity of play and socialization, whether they are off or on the spectrum,” he said.
Time and time again, O’Donnell has met customers whose children have been recently diagnosed with a condition on the autism spectrum.
“They are often distraught and desperate to find anything they can to help their child,” he said He has shown them his collection of Fun & Function toys specially designed for children with special needs, but he said he always wanted to provide more opportunities for these children and their families to have fun together.
“I believe everyone is given a gift,” O’Donnell said. “Maybe through these [Spectrum Studio] activities, we will help children find their gift and maybe, as a result, they will not be a kid with autism, but rather an adult with a skill set.”
Today, one out of 110 children born will be on the autism spectrum.
Day said these children need extra attention and time to learn eye contact, cooperation and taking turns.
O’Donnell believes that children off the spectrum need those same lessons.
“If we get these kids playing cards (and other games) at 4 years old maybe we won’t have to detox them from X-Box (and other technical addictions) at 14,” he said.
The Spectrum Studio has been working with occupational therapist and consultant Lisa Auerbach Baum who specializes in sensory integration, handwriting intervention and social skill competency training. She has recommended different programs to Day and O’Donnell and has made suggestions on ways to involve the entire family.
Happy Hearts Yoga will conduct the yoga classes, and Hearts for Autism will hold the art classes in the Spectrum Studio. Creative Dramatics-Family Stages will offer acting classes, and Cynthia Day and Schuy Nunn will host the Lego Stop Action Movie Making Class. Family Nights at O’Doodles will start on Friday, Oct. 22, and include games and snacks for all. Everyone is welcome to join in the games!
The Spectrum Studio also will be exhibiting at the Community Fair during this weekend’s Philadelphia “Walk Now for Autism Speaks” on Saturday, Oct. 2, at Citizens Bank Park. “Walk Now for Autism Speaks” is a unique fundraising event that offers a safe and enjoyable day for families affected by autism.
The day includes a one to two mile walk, entertainment and community resource fair with educational sources, therapists, schools, recreational organizations and creative child-friendly activities – a “one-stop-shop” for families affected by autism. Opening ceremonies will be hosted by CBS3 and CW Philly 57.
Gates open at 8 a.m., opening ceremonies begin at 9:30 a.m. and the walk begins at 10 a.m. There is no cost to participate, but walkers are encouraged to register in advance and to collect donations, which can be submitted in advance or on walk day. Last year the walk attracted more than 12,000 walkers and raised more than $850,000.
This past weekend, Cynthia Day’s children and friends from Spring side School hosted a bake sale in front of Citibank to raise money for the walk. This was just one of the many events around the area dedicated to raising money for autism awareness.
All event proceeds will support Autism Speaks’ work to increase awareness about the growing autism epidemic, fund innovative autism research and family services, and advocate for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.
Day will be at the “Walk Now for Autism Speaks” with her family on Saturday, but after this she will go back to dedicating her energies to creating the Spectrum Studio.
“We have received such a wonderful response from the Chestnut Hill community for ‘Walk Now for Autism Speaks,'” she said. “We are so glad to be offering the Spectrum Studio as a center for social and community activity for area children and their families. We believe there are many, many area families who will benefit from this.”
To register for the walk, go to www.walknowforautismspeaks.org/Philadelphia. For more information on the Spectrum Studio, contact Cynthia Day at 215-805-3094 or Fran O’Donnell at 215-435-0439.